Posts tagged ‘methodology’

March 13, 2007

yoga and ethics

Yoga places at its base the fundamental requirement that one be good before one can even begin the process of renunciation and acquire knowledge of Brahman. According to Patanjali, the first limb of yoga is “abstention from evil-doing”. Further, “undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”

It is interesting how ethics, individuality and practice are here combined – in a very un-Modern fashion.

In the West, since the begining of modernity, ethics is usually thought of as the end of a human being’s activities, not the beginning. We see ethics as the goal towards which we strive, and we acquire knowledge in order to better define that goal. Ethics in indian philosophy seems to be a tool used for the furthering of (one’s) salvation. You do good to others because that is a necessary prequel to liberation.

Furthermore, ethics in the West usually adpots a communal perspective: it is defined with respect to Humanity (Kant) or to the whole of human beings (utilitarianism) or with respect to a community (communitarian virtue ethics). In the Upanishads and other attendant texts, however, ethics seems to be a purely individual practice. The goal of your ethical behaviour is not so much doing good to others as becoming a good person yourself. Doing good to others is the means to becoming perfect – ie the means to achieving that state in which you can begin to do yoga.

Also, in indian philosophy you do good because it is in your interest to do so, not because some abstract universal law requires it of you. That does not mean that the goal is crude happiness – it is in fact liberation (from happiness and everything else) – but the goal is intrinsic to the practitioner, whereas in the west the goal is usually defined as extrinsic (Kant doesn’t care if you are happy, so long as you do your duty; the utilitarians don’t care if you are happy, so long as lots of other people are happy. Patanjali thinks you cannot be happy unless you begin to practice ethics).

So indian ethics does not differ in what it tells us is good, but it differs in how it explains why we are to be good. Europeans are to do good because that is what the fundamental structure of the world requires of them; indians are to do good because that will make them good people.

p.s. it might have occurred to some that this difference probably flows from the christian insistence that salvation does not come through works. But that is a musing for another post.

UPDATE: thanks to S. for pointing out in the comments that i got a bit carried away with my generalisations. Of course, the west i had in mind was that of the Renaissance and after. The Greeks as S. points out, but also early christianity (think of John’s Jesus “if you hold to my teachings … you will know the truth” or Origenes) was very much concerned with becoming good in order to attain to knowledge, just as Patanjali is.

Corrected the first instance of “western” into “Modern”.

March 9, 2007

post-religious practices

Here is a list of my current post-religious practices (ie rationalized forms of religious rituals that work just as well, if not better, than the originals):

  1. (Yoga) breathing exercises every morning and sometimes during the day or at night. This clears the head, allows the brain to work its way through what it thinks is important and then realise it isn’t that important after all. The exercises, by forcing you to concentrate upon one single, simple thing (breathing), help you to slowly extricate your consciousness from direct involvement in your thought processes and rise above the tumult of your jumbled thoughts. This brings on the realization that none of it matters so much that you can’t calmly deal with it: it calms both body and mind. Related Religious Practice: prayer. In prayer, you also work through your current worries, commit them to God and trust that he will take care of things, leaving you with a sense of peace.
  2. Taking a bath early every morning without fail. (Here in india ‘bath’ means scooping water out of a large orange bucket with a smallish measuring cup and pouring it onto your head.) This is, for the most part, a necessary attendant practice to (1.) as you must be well awake for the early morning meditation, lest you fall back asleep… Related Religious Practice: ablutions. They are a ritual that provides structure to one’s life as well as preventing olfactory sins against one’s (close) neighbors.
  3. Blogging (about religion and ethics). It keeps me thinking, writing and accountable. Moreover, i gain a teeny tiny feeling of community. Related Religious Practice: bible study.
  4. Keeping the sabbath, on sundays. This requires a lot of discipline and careful a priori definitions of what you want to consider work. But when enforced, it becomes a powerful encouragement to work hard during the week and force your way through all manner of difficulties because you know for certain that you will be able to rest and forget it all on sunday. Related Religious Practice: Keeping the sabbath, on sundays.
February 18, 2007


Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolutions points us to Seth Robert’s blog on self-experimentation. Seth has developed, among other things, a diet (called the Shangri-La diet) by experimenting upon himself. That is, he set up hypotheses, tested them and modified them according to his results. This is abosolutely great. It is not only something we should do with respect to our eating habits but also our ethics and our religion. If we got people to start worrying about, and experimenting with, the best way to pray, perhaps they would stop worrying about getting other people to pray…

February 14, 2007

abortion and religion in the world (google trends)

Google trends is dangerously interesting, a potential source of hours of wasted time. Beware! However, it is also a source of very interesting, though difficult to interpret data. Here are three graphs that display searches for “abortion” vs. searches for “religion” in the USA, France and India:

abortion vs religion in the USA

Figure 1 – abortion vs. religion in the usa

avortement vs religion in france

Figure 2 – avortement vs religion in france

abortion vs religion in india

Figure 3 – abortion vs religion in india

What does this mean? I interpret it as signifying that, in the USA, religion and abortion are very closely tied in peoples’ minds, ie that abortion is a religious concept or problem. In france, however, (germany looks the same) people do not think of the two concepts together: abortion is a secular problem. India only seems to have aquired the word in the first quarter of 2005! (I assume this is a google problem. Or does someone know of an indian explanation?)

Of course, it could also mean that abortion is simply not a problem (anymore) in western europe. Now i could spend some more time figuring out a search that would verify that last claim… All in all, a very interesting waste of time!

UPDATE:  looking at the usa and french graphs side by side, i think that we can easily answer my last remark: france and the usa have just about exactly the same religion trends, but in comparison the the usa, the french abortion trend is dead flat (semi-intentional pun, of very poor taste i might add). This would mean that abortion is no longer an issue in france but still is in the us, which, of course, is a platitude.

February 12, 2007

Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus

This has nothing to do with anything i usually write about (i’ll categorize it as methodology and ethics) but it’s fun. In the Times Online book review section:

Well, zut alors! A distinguished French literary professor has become a surprise bestselling author by writing a book explaining how to wax intellectual about tomes that you have never actually read.

Pierre Baynard, 52, specialises in the link between literature and psychoanalysis, and says it is perfectly possible to bluff your way through a book that you have never read — especially if that conversation happens to be taking place with someone else who also hasn’t read it. All of which just goes to confirm what I’ve always thought about French academics, which is that mostly they are oversubsidised frauds.

October 16, 2006

positive dialectics

Origen is one of my great heros. By my reading of his work, he had a very specific (ifOrigenes not very novel) idea of how we acquire knowledge about what is good. Being a christian theologian, he was very much concerned with the bible, which was the foundation of his ethics. His idea basically runs thus: read the bible and do what it tells you to do, then you will become a better person and will then be able to re-read the bible and understand it better, do what you now understand it to be prescribing, etc. Origen didn’t think one ever arrived, having become perfect, but that this back and forth movement (hence my calling it a dialectic) should accompany one throughout one’s life. Before i re-work this into a more contemporary form, i should point out a few specifics: first, Origen assumes that you really only understand something when you do it. This is admittedly not very novel and might seem self-evident, but nevertheless runs afoul of every current brand of ethics – all those theorists trying to tell us what to do without ever trying their ideas out (on themselves or anywhere). Second, it is a basically optimistic view, one that assumes things can get better, but never assuming that they must (as a Hegelian would): this doesn’t happen on its own, but requires a fair amount of personal involvement. Finally, Origen is here giving us a nothing more than a reworking of the johannine Jesus: “if you hold to my teachings, you are truly my disciples, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” We will return to the freedom idea at the end of this post.

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October 5, 2006

new ethics wiki

I have now created a new ethics wiki. Therein i give a very rough outline of what i think this new ethics could look like. Specifically, the new ethics is defined as a critical method for doing ethics and therefore has no specific ethical content. The aim is to provide a framework within which we can each work on and work through whatever system of ethics we currently have (whether we are explicitly aware of it or not).

September 27, 2006

new philosophy explained

i’ve added a wiki over on the New Ethics page that tries to explain a bit better what i am trying to do here. Note that to do so i’ve had to describe a New Philosophy of which this New Ethics of mine is but a sub-section.

A quick summary (for the hurried): the New Philosophy is divided into three levels. Level 1 is the one this blog of mine is working at: it is the personal reflections of an individual and the comments others offer. Level 2 is the one the New Ethics is situated at, a theory created by a community of people from Level 1. Level 3 philosophy, the last level, is the reflections of all people from Levels 1 and 2 about the methods they use on the two first levels. But read the book.

September 23, 2006

theory and practice

One could construe many of the contemporary problems with ethics, and perhaps with our moral life in general, by pointing to the fact that one can nowadays know a lot about ethics, even teach it, without being a moral person. The practice of ethics has been severed from the theories about it. Some have lauded this division of labour; but many have doubted how appropriate it is in the realm of ethics.

This New Ethics tries to unite theory and praxis on two levels: first, the writing of the blog (theory) directly modifies my behavior (praxis) inasmuch as reflecting upon my ethical problems to some extent solves them, ie necessarily implements what i am writing about. In a second sense theory and praxis are united because a fair portion of the blog is concerned with methodological questions, ie i am discussing (theory) what seems to be working and what not in the way i am implementing this New Ethics (praxis). In effect, this New Ethics has no essence or definition since, by definition, it is supposed to improve upon and thus change itself.

This is obviously an attempt to reach back to older types of ethics (stoic, christian) that denied that one could say anything interesting about ethics without having first implemented the suggestion in one’s life. The main difference between the New Ethics and the older ethics is that i have eschewed as much as possible any substantive constraints, that is the New Ethics only wants to be a framework within which i might develop any kind of ethic, or no particular one. The only goal is simply to structure my attempts at living an examined life.

September 11, 2006

staying alive

This philosophical diary keeping is helping me stay alive. (Today is a depressed day.) It has so far been able to minimize the strength of my depressed moods by reminding me that i can write about the fact of my being sad, which is a means of purging the mood itself. At times this new ethics simply serves to perform the function of a good listening friend. As an added feature, you cannot really encourage your feeling bad for yourself since you are constantly striving to write about yourself as if from someone else’s perspective: the vicious circle of self-pity is broken by the fact that you must generalize your case while attempting to formulate a solution and cannot therefore talk about your feelings so as to generate more such feelings; you must rather cooly reflect upon your feelings – which in turn cools your feelings down.